Thatcherite emptiness

Phil Sharpe reviews the film 'Notting Hill'

Notting Hill is a gentle comedy about love, romance and the difficulties involved when people of different lifestyles try to form a relationship.

Julia Roberts plays Anna Scott - the most famous actress in the world, a person more familiar and comfortable with Beverley Hills than London. Hugh Grant plays the owner of a travel bookshop who has had little adventure in his life - and then he meets Anna Scott. Their on-off relationship is connected to Anna Scott’s indecision and ambiguity. She has the fame and fortune, and so is the dominant person in the relationship. Thus Grant’s shopowner can only passively wait for Anna Scott to make up her mind about their romance, and eventually tries to rebel against her decision. But even then he is putty in her hands.

This means the film starts to veer towards a happy ending, but this is not made possible by the usual active romancing of the male character: instead it is the female who ultimately takes the decisions, and is able to exert her will because of the unequal economic status of the two main characters. Hugh Grant’s insipid and deferential character is an expression of the inequality within the romantic partnership. We pity Hugh Grant’s character, but we do not have empathy with him because he never really loses his pathetic quality.

This film is also about the angst and alienation of the traditional middle class of England - what is portrayed most vividly is the mundane existence of various characters. The stockbrokers, lawyers and shopowners, who are the social background for this film, seem to have no satisfaction at work or play, and instead gain transitory enjoyment through trying to help other people find romance. The fact that this film is essentially a comedy, and has some very funny moments, does not overcome the sense of a lack of purpose and emptiness of the traditional middle class. They may be better off than most people, but nothing seems to make them enjoy life.

So how good a film is Notting Hill? The acting is generally excellent, and Julia Roberts is superb as the actress who has many complex decisions to make. Hugh Grant is satisfactory at once more playing Hugh Grant, but this film was made for his performance. In political terms the film was very contradictory. An attempt was made to get the audience to like 1990s London, but all we could think of was how depressing everyone seemed to be about living in London.

The film represents the Thatcherite dream turning sour for the traditional middle class - this is the theme that bubbles along under the surface of its genteel exterior.

Phil Sharpe